A few months ago, as I was speaking to a non-profit group about how developments in the Arab world would affect Israel, I noticed the faces in the crowd looking back at me with deep skepticism. I understood the reason.
I was arguing that there is a possibility — not a certainty — that Israel will eventually emerge safer than before as a result of the Arab revolutions, also known as the Arab Spring. I have not changed my mind.
Let me be clear: I know there are no guarantees and great risk. A period of turbulence lies ahead, and the long-term outcome is far from assured. The dangers Israel faces are many, and real. But I believe that if change in the Arab world ushers in a genuine opening to new ideas, it could bring a more stable and reliable peace between Israel and its neighbors.
There is a possibility that over time, as the people of the Arab world are allowed to speak more freely and to discuss new ideas, more will openly express what remains a most unpopular point of view: That it’s not the end of the world to allow a small sliver of the Middle East to be the home of the Jewish people; that peace — real peace, not just lack of war — is OK.
Some will never accept that view. The overall conflict will not end before Israelis and Palestinians find a common solution to their difficult dispute. But there is a chance that in a democracy a segment of the Arab population will recognize that Israel and the Jews are not the cause of every problem in the region, an absurd idea that remains stunningly pervasive.
In the short run, however, the challenges will mount and Israel must be counted as one of the losers of the region’s transformation. The revolution upended a situation in which Israel experienced a certain amount of stability in its always-tense neighborhood.
Egyptians, like other Arabs, tend to be viscerally hostile to Israel. But until last year’s uprising, Israel could count on Egypt to stay at peace. Now Egypt has a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with a history of opposition to Israel’s existence. The cold peace has been replaced by vague promises to preserve existing treaties, along with a sharp upsurge in violence, particularly on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s border.
Across the region, a new democratic opening has elevated Islamist politicians. It has also given voice to a population that had been exposed to only one point of view regarding Israel. For the near term, that means that people who despised Israel have now become voters. That creates even more friction.
But over time, if dictatorships and repression are replaced with freedom, new ideas and new perspectives should slowly seep into the national consciousness, some will begin to understand the kind of life and death choices Israel has faced over the years while surrounded by enemies who wish to destroy it.
Consider the events of Aug. 5, when masked militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai before bursting across the border and rushing towards an Israeli farming community. Israeli fighter jets stopped the attack, blowing up the explosives-laden armored vehicle the attackers had hijacked at the Egyptian border post.
It was a tragedy for Egypt, challenging views that have fueled the Egyptian people’s antipathy towards Israel.
Egyptian, Israeli and American intelligence know the Sinai has become lawless, with small bands of al Qaida fighters sharing the territory with Bedouin smugglers and Hamas operatives.
This time, the enemy was not Israel. Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rushed to blame Israel and stoke conspiracy theories. But Egyptians knew the truth. That’s why the soldiers’ funeral in Cairo turned into an angry anti-Hamas, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest.
Before long, Egypt’s armed forces responded against the Sinai militants with a force reminiscent of what Israel has used when its people came under attack. Interesting.
The Arab revolution means Israel confronts new threats, but so do Israel’s enemies, such as Iran and Syria. Most importantly, the people who controlled the media, who monopolized the message in the Arab world, will face competition.
A more realistic, less negative view of Israel might emerge, leading to a more solid peace. I understand the skepticism. But the possibility is real.